The Plot: Karou is just another art student in Prague with a sketch book full of characters “gorgeously rendered and deeply strange“: Issa, part serpent; giraffe necked Twiga; Yasri, with a parrot beak; and Brimstone with his great ram’s horns. Her friends think she is inventive and has a terrific imagination.
Her friends are wrong.
Karou’s sketchbooks are not a world she dreamed up; they are the world she lives in. Karou has been raised by these odd creatures, growing up running errands for Brimstone that involve teeth (and sometimes blood and danger) and using wish-beads to turn her hair blue and add and take away tattoos. It’s all she knows, but she doesn’t know why, she doesn’t know who she is or how she came to live with Brimstone and the others.
Angels have been marking the doors that devils use.
The doors that Karou goes through when she visits Brimstone and her other friends are marked. Karou’s friends are devils.
Karou finds herself caught in a war between angels and devils, and may finally learn the answers to all her questions. But, at what cost?
The Good: Daughter of Smoke and Bone is stunning — I’ve never read anything quite like it. Taylor tells us, up front, “once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.” Talk about your spoilers! And this illustrates why spoilers don’t matter — yes, there will be an angel. There will be a devil. They will fall in love; the reader even knows how it will end. The entire plot is given away before the story even begins. Yet, still, the reader turns the pages, wondering, who is the angel? Who is the devil? How do they even meet to fall in love? What does this have to do with Karou, who lives in Prague and meets her best friend for coffee and picks the wrong boyfriend, yet also knocks on a normal-looking door and enters the mysterious workshop of Brimstone, a world where wishes come true for a price, and the price is teeth. Oh, what does Brimstone do with all those teeth . . . .
Prague! I visited Prague once, for only a couple of days, and fell in love. One day, I want to go back, and reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone just made me want to book reservations tomorrow. I love how Taylor creates multiple settings: Prague, Karou’s hometown. Brimstone’s workshop, where Karou grew up and where she returns when called by Brimstone to run an errand. Then there is Akiva, the angel, and the story of the angel and the devil and the world that these two lived in. And then there are the places around the world that Karou visits. Each place, whether in our world or not, is fully realized with just enough details to make it real, even when Karou is there for only a few pages.
When bringing a reader into a created world, the author has to be careful to let the reader know enough to feel comfortable in the story so they can understand what is happening, yet at the same time avoid any awkward info dumping. Too much detail overwhelms, and can get in the way of the plot. Too little leaves the reader uncertain what is going on and why it matters. I loved how Taylor introduced the unbelievable and made it believable: the imaginative sketchbooks are described, the reader is told Karou’s classmates think the pictures and stories are made up, and Karou responds with a shrug and a smile that “it’s all real. . . . Over the years she’d found that was all it took, that lazy smile, and she could tell the truth without risk of being believed. It was easier than keeping track of lies, and so it became part of who she was: Karou with her wry smile and crazy imagination.” Wait, what? It’s real? Brimstone and Issa and the others — all real. And without any fanfare, in a matter of fact way, we find out about the worlds Karou lives in.
Karou is the main character, our hero, and if her friends look a bit odd or different, well, they’re her friends, right? The good guys. But then, a handful of chapters in, it turns out to be quite different from what we thought: the angel Akiva is introduced as he marks the devil’s portals into the human world. One of those doors is the door into Brimstone’s workshop. Wait, what? OK, yes, his name is Brimstone but — really? Karou’s friends are devils? Something is wrong, is off, because all the reader has seen is comfort and support for Karou. There is the matter of the teeth, and that Karou is only allowed in Brimstone’s workshop, but still . . . . The reveals are wonderfully paced, just as you think you know what the story is and where Taylor is going, the story turns and twists to something else. And at the end, it turns out there are no twists and turns: it all makes sense, it all comes together in one straight path, it just takes a while to realize it.
And this, then, is the real genius of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. This is the story of Karou; but it is also the story of angels and devils, and their world, and their war. The reader thinks they know the strange world of Karou, but then they discover that the workshop and the devils Karou knows are just one small corner of a larger universe. It is in that universe, not Karou’s world of Prague and cars and coffee and art school, that an angel and devil fell in love. To plunge the reader into that world from page one may have been too overwhelming, too over the top, too full of unbelievable creatures and mythology, so instead the reader is introduced to it slowly: here is Karou. Here is Issa. Here is Brimstone. A wish can make your hair blue, or your ex-boyfriend itch in a very embarrassing place. And just as the reader accepts that as the new normal, even more is shared and suddenly blue hair is almost tame.
Because I adore multiple stories being told at the same time, and the twin stories of Karou and the angel and devil intertwine in a wonderful manner. Because the settings, both real and fantasy, are fully realized. Because the love stories are heart-breaking and heart-racing. Because the story starts so ordinary — an art student — and ends so extraordinary. Because I got to the end and realized this is a book length prologue to what is sure to be stunning sequel. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.